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A Voting Disaster Foretold

27 October 2018

The 2018 Texas general election is going to be a disaster, and that's independent of who wins or loses. To be more precise, I should say "who appears to win or lose", because we're never really going to know. Despite more than 15 years of warnings, Texas still uses DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) voting machines, where a vote is entered into a computer and there is no independent record of how people actually voted. And now, with early voting having started, people's votes are being changed by the voting machines.

This isn't the first time votes have been miscounted because of DRE machine failures. In 2004, "Carteret County lost 4,438 votes during the early-voting period leading up to Election Day because a computer didn't record them." Ed Felten has often written about the machines' own outputs show inconsistencies. (For some reasons, images are not currently showing on those blog posts, so I've linked to a Wayback Machine copy.)

It doesn't help that the problem here appears to be due to a completely avoidable design error by the vendor. Per the Texas Secretary of State's office, bad things can happen if voters operate controls while the page is rendering. That's an excuse, not a reason, and it's a bad one. Behavior like that is completely unacceptable from a human factors perspective. If the system will misbehave from data entry during rendering, the input controls should be disabled or inputs from them should be ignored during that time— period, end of discussion. There is literally no excuse for not doing this correctly. Programming this correctly is "hard"? Sorry; not an acceptable answer. And judging from how quickly Texas officials "diagnosed" the problem, it appears that they've known about the issue and let it ride. Again, this is completely unacceptable.

I've been warning about buggy voting machine software for more than 10 years:

Ironically, for all that I'm a security expert, my real concern with electronic voting machines is ordinary bugs in the code. These have demonstrably happened. One of the simplest cases to understand is the counter overflow problem: the voting machine used too small a field for the number of votes cast. The machine used binary arithmetic (virtually all modern computers do), so the critical number was 32,767 votes; the analogy is trying to count 10,000 votes if your counter only has 4 decimal digits. In that vein, the interesting election story from 2000 wasn't Florida, it was Bernalillo County, New Mexico; you can see a copy of the Wall Street Journal story about the problem here.
I haven't changed my mind
Bellovin is "much more worried about computer error — buggy code — than cyberattacks," he says. "There have been inexplicable errors in some voting machines. It's a really hard problem to deal with. It's not like, say, an ATM system, where they print out a log of every transaction and take pictures, and there's a record. In voting you need voter privacy — you can't keep logs — and there's no mechanism for redoing your election if you find a security problem later."

Others agree. A recent National Academies report noted long-standing concerns about DRE machines:

The rapid growth in the prominence of DREs brought greater voice to concerns about their use, particularly their vulnerability to software malfunctions and external security risks. And as with the lever machines that preceded them, without a paper record, it is not possible to conduct a convincing audit of the results of an election.
and recommended that
4.11 Elections should be conducted with human-readable paper ballots. These may be marked by hand or by machine (using a ballot-marking device); they may be counted by hand or by machine (using an optical scanner). Recounts and audits should be conducted by human inspection of the human-readable portion of the paper ballots. Voting machines that do not provide the capacity for independent auditing (e.g., machines that do not produce a voter-verifiable paper audit trail) should be removed from service as soon as possible.

4.12 Every effort should be made to use human-readable paper ballots in the 2018 federal election. All local, state, and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots by the 2020 presidential election.

This election will undooubtedly end up in court: there's a hotly contested Senate race, and both campaigns are very well-funded. Whatever the outcome, many people will feel that they were disenfranchised—and it didn't have to happen.